It all looked the same. Parking her rental car safely to one side of the residential street, for a moment Christina didn’t get out of the car. Her eyes focused on the two-story brick home to her right. The same blossoming bushes adorned either side of the paved walkway leading up to the covered porch. She was pretty sure those were even the same cushions on the patio furniture, only slightly aged by the sun. The only thing different was the car parked in the driveway. Same manufacturer, new model.
It was only when she started to feel like an intruder—was that a neighbor’s blinds twitching just across the street?—that Christina slowly levered herself out of the car. Her hands clutched the sides of her purse as she looked up and down the empty roadway before crossing the street. Her legs trembled when she reached the short driveway, but her eyes never betrayed her trepidation. Instead, they stared straight ahead.
She hadn’t bothered to call and warn them. Hell, she wasn’t even sure what either of their phone numbers were anymore. And honestly, she’d been too afraid to find out they’d changed them—this would have somehow put to bed any half-smothered hope that they still cared, even a little bit.
More than that, she had been paralyzed by the fear that they’d tell her not to bother coming at all.
These thoughts took her to the front door; she was vaguely shocked she’d made it that far without being seen. Natalie DeLuca was not one to be taken by surprise. It would have suited her just fine to meet an unexpected visitor halfway up the drive, but when Christina gained the doorway, she was forced to ring the doorbell.
Oddly, that hurt worst of all. That this was no longer a home she could just enter without thought of her welcome.
Standing there, feeling the heat of the late afternoon sun, Christina counted slowly in her head, anything to distract her nerves. She was at four when she heard the sound of shuffling footsteps. At seven, the door before her swung open.
If Christina had hoped to surprise a look of amazement on her mother’s face, she was doomed to be disappointed. Other than a quickly stifled quiver over her harsh features that woman didn’t so much as blink at the sight of a daughter she hadn’t seen for almost five years—a daughter she’d all but given up on ever seeing again.
“Christina,” she said primly, her lips spreading out in a thin line.
Registering this lack of greeting, Christina tried to hold her temper. She really should have known better, anyway. What had she expected? That perhaps her mother had missed her as much as she’d been missed; that perhaps she’d regretted her daughter’s exile all these years—had she expected tears?
At the terse exchange, neither of them spoke for a moment—the screen door still standing closed between them. Christina’s eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, silently imploring Natalie to do something. To make a sound, to bite her lip, to burst through the doorway…but nothing happened.
After a few moments, Natalie’s only change in expression was that of a pointedly raised eyebrow. “Is that it?”
Christina blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Well? I assume you came here for a reason—or do you just intend to stand here all day? I’ve got things to do,” she said, waving absently behind her.
Despite herself, Christina heard a gurgled sob escape her tight throat. Clamping down hard, she swallowed past the rest of it. “You haven’t changed, I see.”
At the words, Natalie DeLuca crossed her arms over her chest. “I wasn’t the one who needed to.”
Christina nodded slowly. “Of course not.”
Natalie heaved a great sigh. “What do you want, Christina?”
Christina laughed humorlessly. “Honestly, I don’t know.” She sighed, one hand cradling her hairline. “I’m not sure why I came here. I thought—” She raised her arms impotently and then she let them fall again.
Natalie inclined her head. “You thought what?”
“I guess I thought you’d invite me in.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake…” With a long suffering sigh, Natalie pushed the door open. Stepping out the way, Christina watched her mother begrudgingly wave her forward. “But I don’t have all day. We’ve got plans tonight…”
Stepping inside the bright kitchen—same floral curtains at the windows, same oak cupboards with that same hideous ceramic cookie jar shaped like an apple on the counter—the laugh that burst out of Christina was filled with resentment, self-loathing. “And Natalie DeLuca doesn’t break her commitments.”
Her mother’s lip thinned. “Jokes, Christina?”
“No mom, just a long-lost daughter. Hardly of importance.”
Natalie’s back straightened at the words. “It was your choice to drop in like this.”
A sputtered laugh. “God! Of course—”
“You will not take the Lord’s name in vain in this house!”
But Christina didn’t hear her. Turning away, her arms crossing down at her hips, she took in the spotless countertops, the unadorned refrigerator door, anything to keep from staring at her mother. “I don’t know what the hell I expected coming here, anyway. I guess, that my presence would actually mean something to you. That it would be enough.”
“Ah,” Natalie said slowly, her tongue clicking against her teeth. “So now I’ve disappointed you?”
Christina shook her head. “I should be used to your indifference.”
“I see. So I was a terrible mother, then? Is that it? You threw dirt on our family name, forced your father to work alongside a man he learned to loathe, and all because, what? Because I didn’t hug you enough?”
“You never even checked in on me!” Christina said, hurtling the words at her mother and hating the hurt threading through them. With an impatient flick, she brushed back threatening tears. “In all these years—I could have been dead for all you knew, but that was hardly a concern. Not to you. After you threw me out, that was it.” Closing her eyes, Christina snapped her fingers. Then she said the words she’d dared to never say: “You never even called.”
With a sigh, she made a half turn, heading back the way she’d come. Her fingertips were just reaching for the door handle when she heard a small voice say: “Well, it would have been hard to do, when I didn’t have your number anymore.”